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  Book review

Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land

Tim Mackintosh-Smith

There is, of course, a longish and well-established tradition of Englishmen writing about Arabia, and much of it is in a similar vein. Take a romanticisation of the ‘noble bedu’, add a sense of the spiritual cleanliness of the desert, throw in a dash of half-acknowledged sexual ambiguity and ‘voila!’ - there is your cocktail, and a pretty unpalatable one it can be too.

Fortunately, Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s book is not like that at all. True, he has his prejudices- ‘the dour Saudi’, the ‘impossibly polite Levantine’ and - a recurring theme, this one, - the ‘smug Egyptian’. And like so many of the Englishmen who have engaged with the peninsula, Mackintosh-Smith manages more or less to ignore the female of the species (there is a rather self-conscious and unconvincing apologia for this near the beginning of the book). But by and large, ‘Travels in Dictionary Land’ is a compelling account of life in contemporary Yemen through the eyes of a foreigner who has decided to make the place his home. As Mackintosh-Smith himself says, the book is ‘unfashionably digressive’, but therein lies perhaps the most endearing of its various qualities.

It helps that the writer has so much promising material to deal with. For this is of course the upland ‘other Arabia’, away from the deserts and motorways and camels and shopping malls of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Without being for a moment in any way patronising, he makes it clear on every page that he is very fond of Yemen and the Yemenis - as well he might be. He is clearly a ‘qabili’ by instinct, much happier walking in the Wadi Surdud than drinking beer in Aden, but he is naturally generous and his descriptions, while retaining a healthy sense of the ridiculous, are never small-minded or carping.

Mackintosh-Smith lives in Sana’a, so it is appropriate that his Yemeni progress both starts and ends here. On both occasions, qat is much in evidence (‘in the end, though, the question of its desirability and permissibility revolves around matters of politics, taste, ethnocentrism and sectarian prejudice’ - which sums up the issue pretty neatly in my view). But the greater part of the book consists of set-piece excursions (or diversions), which taken as a whole give a remarkably full picture of Yemen and its diversity, both now and in the past. Mackintosh-Smith has a good sense of history, and learning worn lightly is another of the qualities that give the book its shape and depth. He takes us gently by the hand through the quasi-mythological genealogies of the Arabs in general and the Yemenis in particular (and I defy even the most battle-scarred Arabist of the old school to take the end of Muhammad al-Hajari’s ‘Compendium’ in his or her stride: ‘... Now, this Shayban married three wives: Mihdad the daughter of Humran ibn Bishr ibn Amr bin Murthad, who bore him Yazid; Akrashah the daughter of Hajib ibn Zurarah ibn Adas, who bore him al-Ma’mur; and Amrah the daughter of Bishr ibn Amr ibn Adas who bore him al-Maq’ad ... etc, etc).

Then, we are introduced by way of Baraqish and the Marib dam to the complexity of Yemen’s pre-Islamic history, which even if it did not quite encompass the Yemeni state in Tibet claimed by Nashwan ibn Sa’id, certainly achieved a remarkable degree of organisation and sophistication before the Roman mercantile fleet succeeded where Aelius Gallus’s legion had failed and diverted the great overland Arabian incense routes, precipitating a decline that culminated in the bursting of the dam and the demise of ‘al-Qalis’, the great Sana’a Cathedral whose site can still be seen in the souq. And next, the crucial role played by Yemeni warriors in the first breathtaking expansion of Islam, intermingling with the Berbers of North Africa and bringing down Visigothic Spain before ‘briefly occupying Bordeaux’.

Interwoven with this historical tale - the first arrival of the Ottomans, impressions recorded by the occasional European visitor - are visits to Sa’ada, the ‘architect’s city’, where in the qat souq the writer, the qat merchant and a local Jew get down to the ‘ancient rivalry of the People of the Book- trying to get the best price’, and to Shahara, where he encounters German tourists, ‘fashionably weathered by a life of smart travel destinations’ (would the author prefer his tourists unfashionable, or does he disapprove in principle, in which case what exactly is he?), and to Jabal Raymah, where he catches perfectly that exhilarating Yemeni experience of walking through clouds, and where he drinks a can of ginger beer- ‘Flavoured with chemicals resulting from decades of research, packed in al-Hudaydah under franchise from a German firm in a can made from the product of a Latin American bauxite mine, furnished with a ring-pull that was the chance brainchild of a millionaire inventor, and brought here by truck, and then donkey, for my delectation, it wasn’t nearly as refreshing as the ‘qishr’- but then doubtless those Yemenis in Bordeaux encountered some fairly complicated cultural and commercial cross-fertilisations too along the way.

If all this seems slightly incoherent or out of control, it isn’t. It is merely, as said, digressive. Mackintosh-Smith is skilled at taking a place or an event and using it as a peg on which to hang all manner of fascinating and improbable detail. A visit to Wadi Dahr is the occasion, naturally enough, for a brief history of and meditation on the ‘gorgeous and disorderly’ Imamate and its overthrow (while he is doubtless an impeccable Sana’ani in all other respects, I suspect Mackintosh-Smith harbours a certain romantic sympathy, and I would not want to put it any stronger, for these intriguing if bloodstained despots). Gradually, the outside world began to intrude. The author relates the reaction of a Court historian, one Isma’il al-Washali: "Some (new inventions) he was able to see for himself, like the telegraph, which on one occasion brought word of the destruction, by a comet, of two cities of India whose people are infidels. They are cities of Amrika in the land of the Franks’. The wireless telegraph arrived soon after: al-Washali suggests that it works by means of mirrors ... Other inventions are reported second-hand, like the ‘land steamer’ on the Hejaz Railway, and the ‘steamer which flies in the air’- two were brought down during fighting between the Ottomans and the British near Aden, ‘perhaps with a magnet’." Here, we have the fascinating and authentic voice of one civilisation encountering another, of worlds in collision.

Interestingly, perhaps, given his particular affection for the mountainside tribal culture of northern Yemen, Mackintosh-Smith has particularly interesting things to say about the two places in Yemen perhaps most remote from it, and by no means only in the geographical sense: the Hadhramawt and Socotra. The Hadhramawt, with its ‘palazzos of the merchant sayyids’, its lore of ‘priapic-Oedipal’ activities and with the ‘cities of the imagination’, Ad and Thamud, just beyond, is generally acknowledged to be a place that gets under one’s skin, but here one senses that Mackintosh-Smith is a visitor too, which is not the case in most of the other parts of Yemen he describes. And this is even more the case in Socotra, scarcely less remote than Waq Waq, ‘the Arab Ultima Thule’; a fabulous island of dragons and phoenixes and weird plants and trees that the British apparently once considered as an adjunct to the Jewish state in Palestine. Nominally Christian for several centuries in the past and briefly occupied by the Portuguese (the writer meets a woman ‘unveiled and handsome in a strikingly Iberian way - the sort of woman you might run into in a smart Lisbon department store’) and now claimed by whatever currently passes for the government of Somalia, Socotra is in every sense the end of Yemen, both in fact and in the author’s mind.

Travels in Dictionary Land is therefore not merely a book about Yemen, but about how one person has come to find contentment there, despite the vicissitudes of civil war and violence, and despite those aspects of daily life in Yemen which make one realise how precarious life itself can be. That is why it does not actually matter a great deal whether anyone has ever really called Tim Mackintosh-Smith ‘Sheikh of the Nazarenes’, or even whether he really did come across a young boy in the Sana’a souq wearing his own old prep school blazer, complete with tell-tale inkstain on the inside pocket. These stories feel right, which speaks for itself.

Reviewed by Dominic Simpson